Ask a scientist

Bullets are so 19th-century, and missiles went out of style with skinny ties and leather pants. It’s the 21st century people, and some of us want to know “where is my laser gun?”

Bullets, if you think about it, are really great for killing things. They are cheap, light and small. Also, they do a lot of damage if you manage to hit what you’re aiming at, so why would we want to replace them? Do we still ride around on horses? Do we still gather around the radio to listen to little orphan Annie? No! Progress for progress’ sake, my good man!

If you don’t want to use a bullet, and the thing you want to kill is really, really far away, your current crop of choices are frankly limited. You could fire an arrow, but by Jove, that’s even older than the bullet! You could use a railgun, which accelerates a magnetic projectile along a series of magnetic coils, imbuing the projectile with massive amounts of energy, capable of punching a hole in just about anything, but that sounds a lot like a bullet to me, and therefore a half-measure. A recent movie suggests you cold just think nasty thoughts at your enemy, but that only ever worked on a goat, and it was only that one time.

No, what we really need is a laser gun.

What’s the problem with lasers at the moment? Funny enough, it’s the same problem we’re having with the electric car, in the sense that we don’t have a compact and safe way to store the massive amounts of energy required to power them.

Large vehicle mounted lasers — such as the Airborne Laser, which is mounted in a Boeing 747 and designed to destroy ballistic missiles, or the Hercules mounted Advanced Tactical Laser, designed to destroy ground targets — exist, but they are chemical lasers, which require big tanks of nasty and expensive liquids that power the laser through their volatile reactions. In other words we don’t have laser guns because they are not practical or compact enough for the average grunt to carry around for any length of time.

Also, with all sorts of delicate mirrors and semi-reflective mirrors, lasers have traditionally been rather delicate and temperamental things. Not traits you want in combat.

Technology is advancing though, with Northrop Gurmman announcing the battlefield ready 15 kilowatt “firestrike” solid state laser. The “Firestrike,” unlike many of the current battlefield lasers, is powered by simple batteries, and can be linked with eight other units to create a relatively compact 100kw laser, small enough to be mounted on a car.

So lasers are getting smaller, and more practical. And with the raging onslaught of miniaturization, it can’t be long ‘till that “firestrike” laser gets shrunk to a convenient pocket size.
Go ahead, make my day.